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We Have Always Dreamed In Poetry – Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)

Last time, I talked about the earliest recorded speculative fiction poem. Before the end of the month, I want to talk about  where poetry has ended up, and where it’s going. To get there, we need to have at least a basic idea of what poetry has explored between 2000 BCE and the early 20th century. 4000 years of poetry in a singe blog post?

Actually, we need to start farther back. And, this is going to take more than one post.

Speculative fiction – the stories we tell which have not happened in our reality and contain some element of fantasy – has always been a part of our recorded literature. From the very beginning, we imagined, and then expressed those visions. But it is important to be aware that Western culture prejudices the reader to think of stories of certain gods and epic events as “myth”, while simultaneously promoting certain other gods and epic events as “gospel”. If we want to look at all of these stories as fiction, then it could be said the earliest fantasies in literature were created by Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess who served as High Priestess of moon god Nanna during the third millennium BCE. She lived in the Sumerian city-state of Ur, is one of the earliest women known from historical record, and is the earliest known author and poet.

Except - Enheduanna wrote hymns to her god. She exalted her worship in poetry and song. True, her work was revered. Copied and saved by kings, remembered, and revised 4500 years later*. It was beautiful, but to her and many of the people who came after, it wasn’t fiction. We cannot include it in this discussion without dismissing her beliefs, so we’ll mention her as a forerunner to SFF poetry in that she was an early creator of poetry, but we need to come forward in time a little to find what we’re looking for.

Around 2000 BCE, we find the oldest known love poem, a Sumerian tablet recording a “risque ballad” where a priestess asks her king to take her to bed, and then compliments him afterward. It’s possible that this was actually a performance piece instead of a personal note, and scholars have argued that the people represent gods, are taking part in seasonal fertility/agriculture rituals, and so on. Since it’s either romantic or religious (or both) it’s like the hymns of Ur: we can see the beauty in this work but can’t consider it fiction.

“Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is different because it is a narrator’s account of one person telling another person a story, and the storyteller recalls an event which could not have happened** in order to deliver a moral lesson.*** At most, it’s a parable or metaphor, but contemporary people seemed to have considered it entertainment (therefore, fiction) so it’s safe for us to do so as well. (more…)

Celebrating National Poetry Month the SF way: In the Beginning

April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and I’ll be celebrating one of my favorite forms of writing by talking about speculative fiction in poetry. I’ll be exploring themes and structures, poetry and poets I admire, how to bring SF/F/H elements into poetry effectively, and sharing my own work. I’ve been cobbling together these blog posts for a couple of months now – on lunch breaks, between writing or editing other projects – so I’m excited to finally see them publish to my website. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or suggest work you think I’d like to read.

Where do we start? With history, of course.

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

Though a recent creation, this “holiday”, poetry has been a vital part of American culture since before there was an America. Poetry has existed longer than writing, longer than what we think of as culture. It is a living, breathing, exhalation of humanity.

Speculative fiction – that umbrella term which covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, surrealism, and so much more – has existed just as long. The oldest known spec fic poem is “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, a Middle Kingdom Egyptian text about 4000 years old. In it, a sailor nervously confides in a servant that he thinks the king will kill him for sinking a ship. The servant tells his master a story to reassure him: previously, the servant had been a sailor, and sunk a ship, and washed up on an island ruled by a giant serpent. This serpent spoke to him of family, gave him gifts, and inspired him to return home, where the sailor told the king his story and was considered a hero.

This is the basis for most of the storytelling which came after: the accidental quest, the mythic beast/figure dispensing wisdom, the hero’s journey. We find this framework too, the storyteller being presented in a contemporary setting, and then telling a story about someone or sometime else within the tale we’re reading or listening to. Like Scheherazade’s creator, the author of the ancient servant’s tale embeds a narrative into the frame story, which ends in a moral lesson. It’s a structure we see in both fiction and non-fiction, over and over again, for the next the four millennium, with great success. (Read the Bible? It’s in there, too.)

The moral here? The serpent tells how he lost his family when he was off adventuring:

It happened when I wasn’t there –
burnt when I wasn’t among them!
Then I died for them
when I found them as one heap of corpses.

If you are brave, be stout-hearted,
and you will embrace your children,
kiss your wife, and see your house.
This is better than anything.

Since today I got to kiss my man, kiss my child, and feel both safe and loved, I can tell you – the serpent was right.

#SFWAPro

Boskone Recap #1: So You’re on 4 Panels and No One Knows You’re Going Deaf

Two weeks ago, I attended my first Boskone, and I had a great time. It was the best mix of fun and friends and panels – four of which I was on as an invited panelist – and there was really only one big “oh hell no” moment of the whole convention (more on that later). But before I can talk about the drive, the food, the hotel, the wonderful people, I have to talk about something I’ve been avoiding:

I’ve lost a lot of my hearing in the last few years and I can’t hide it anymore.

To begin with, I wasn’t purposefully hiding it. A few years ago I’d noticed that I wasn’t hearing as well as I thought I should, and had it checked out. After a hearing screen revealed a significant amount of loss, I had more tests, saw specialists, had an MRI, and was diagnosed with otosclerosis. I looked at the treatment options, which basically consisted of surgery, and decided that I could live with where I was. Rather than have someone stick a scalpel into my ear and wiggle it around, I’d just accept and adapt.

That worked fine for a while. I learned to take seats up front in class, make sure I was facing someone when they spoke to me, and got much better at reading lips. Compared to the disabilities many people have to live with every day, this seemed like an annoyance but not truly disabling. Except that otosclerosis doesn’t get better over time, or even level out. It gets worse, and mine got worse faster than I was hoping.

I’ve lost 70% of the hearing in my right ear and 40% in the left. I’ve lost mainly low tones – which cuts out people speaking, especially men. I’ve lost enough that I can’t play the violin anymore, and after it sitting in my closet for a year, I donated it last week. I can still hear my son speaking (his little kid’s voice is high-pitched still, and he tends toward being loud anyway) and music when loud enough or I’m wearing headphones to cut everything else out, but I get startled easily because my boss has walked up behind me and I didn’t hear it. I have to say, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Are you talking to me?” on a regular basis. I’m starting to speak too loudly or too quietly because I can’t tell the difference; in my head I’m still the same volume as before. It’s difficult for people to tell how much I can hear when they can see that I still notice higher pitch sounds coming from the other room, but don’t always understand what they’re saying to my face. In addition to all of this, I get intermittent ringing in my ears as I lose new tones, and the fuzzy white noise of my own blood moving through my head can be very loud at times, and sometimes I lose all sound/sense of space on my left entirely.

Having people assume you’re not bothering to pay attention is hard enough when it’s coworkers and friends. What about when it’s late at night and you have to ask someone sleepy to repeat what they just whispered, and what you missed was, “I love you”? My persistent (but totally unfounded, I know) worry is that someday they’ll get tired of saying it twice.

Boskone really brought the depth of this problem to the forefront. Being on panels meant I had to position myself at the far right of the table, so the other panelists would be on the side most likely to be audible, sometimes after other panelists had already taken their seats. (Everyone was very nice about moving once I explained.) I didn’t hear the entirety of the conversation up at the panelist table, and I didn’t hear almost any of the audience questions, because there wasn’t a mic for the audience members. I smiled at more than one person, when hanging out in a group of friends, hoping that was a suitable answer to what was probably a comment aimed at me. I participated in the Sunday morning flash challenge, but lost points when the judge on the end couldn’t hear my reading since I’d spoken too quietly without realizing it. A man standing next to me on an escalator said something I couldn’t hear, and when I said, “I’m sorry, what?” his response was “Don’t worry, it wasn’t sexist.”

He’d assumed I’d heard him and just didn’t like what he’d said. That happens a lot.

So. Now what?

I’ve told my work that I have this issue, and we’ll see if that helps there. I’ve started the process to schedule the surgery, which scares me but at the same time I no longer feel that I have a choice. The surgery isn’t guaranteed to fix my hearing, by the way. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but if it’s successful it will most likely only stop (for now) or slow the progress of my loss. I’ve started telling people what’s happening with me, so that at least I’m not offending people who don’t understand that no, really, I’m not ignoring you on purpose. (Those who know and choose to be jackasses are not my problem, but so far, that’s not been many.) I’ll continue to work to make it easier for me to understand others, including moving my work desk this week, making sure I’m facing people when they speak to me, and being honest about what I can hear and what I can’t.

What can you do?

If we’re at a convention and you’re on a panel with me, sit on my left. If you’re moderating the panel, please repeat an audience question before any of the panelists answer it (not just for me, but for the rest of the audience, too). If I’m speaking too loudly or too quietly compared to the rest of the people in the conversation, assume I don’t realize it and let me know. Move to where I can see your face if you’re speaking to me, or do something to make sure I know you’re speaking to me (instead of someone else in the group) before you address me. Saying my name works just fine, and so does tapping me on the shoulder or arm.* Know that listening to one person in a quiet room is vastly easier for me than listening to one person speaking as part of a group of five or twenty people speaking all at once, or in a crowded bar or hotel lobby. This means that you might not have to make any adjustments when we’re hanging out alone but suddenly have to be more conscious of how you speak to me in a restaurant.

Remember that I want to hear you, I don’t mean to be ignoring you, and I don’t mind putting effort into making our conversation easier, if you just let me know that you want to be heard.

I hate the idea that I’m making anyone go out of their way for me, and if it only impacted what I heard/understood, I wouldn’t be publicly saying this at all. Unfortunately, my hearing loss has started to affect what others think of my opinion about them, and I don’t ever want to make a fan or friend feel that I just didn’t bother to listen.

Thank you.

* I know this opens me up to being touched by strangers, which isn’t ideal at all, so please use your best judgement about whether tapping me on the arm is really the only way to get my attention at that moment. If it is, and you’re polite about it, I’ll understand.

Edited to add: Someone mentioned this on FB, and I agree. Please do not say, “Oh it wasn’t important,” when I ask you to repeat yourself. You’re assuming that I didn’t want to listen the first time, and you’re feeling slighted when in fact I just couldn’t hear you and actually want to know what you said. And then you’re making me do even more work to coax it out of you, because I don’t want you to feel slighted, and I do want to be a part of the conversation. Plus, refusing to repeat it means you’re excluding me from being able to continue as a part of the discussion, and deciding for me what is and isn’t important to me. You’re important to me, and I wouldn’t have asked you to repeat it unless I did really want to hear it the first time.

#SFWApro

February is the quietest month

It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve been quieter, online, than usual this month. Few blog posts here, fewer tweets and FB updates, and that’s true. It wasn’t intentional but a symptom of the calendar and the other things going on in my life.

December is full of holidays, breaks from school and work, social occasions and general merriment-related stress. January comes on the scene with lists of things to do and goals to be met, along with the promise of potential. “This is the year it all changes!” January shouts, and we want to believe.

March sloshes into April and the process of churning forward into Summer begins. March is when things start to happen out in the world, the calendar begins to fill up again, and we’re expected to start shucking the winter layers in preparation for May revels. I like a good revel as much as the next girl, so I abide by this yearly cycle just like the rest of the world. But what about February?

Short, cold, dark, February. It’s not a bad month, nor a sad one, but I always find it to be a quiet one. The streets are quiet. The nights are quiet. My head, more so than it’s been in a long time, is quiet. I’ve cleaned and redecorated my apartment, nested in for the long haul through winter, and am warm and cozy… which leads to comfortable silences and not noticing when the hours slip past. With fewer social engagements I get to have much-appreciated time alone, and then spend my extra time on the people who matter most. Problems and “drama” that ended 2012 have faded away, leaving only the good moments behind.

Work has been moving along and gaining momentum, so much so that there have been days I’ve answered email and tweeted and blogged as Dagan Books and have completely forgotten to do those things as me. I’m okay with that.

I’ve been reading more novels and less short stories. I think that’s a winter habit, too.

February is coming to an end and with it the end of the quietest time of the year. I’ve done the work I needed to do, change the things I needed to change. Like a bear coming out of hibernation leaner and hungry for what’s next. Okay, more like a squirrel than a bear, but you get my point. (Do capybaras hibernate?)

There’s more, a lot more, that I am almost tempted to say but not quite. Personal things, internal things. Happy, hopeful, lovely things. But I think for now I’ll keep that to myself, and enjoy the quiet for a bit longer.

February isn’t over yet.

Letting Go

I have a problem with control. I can look back and say it’s because I grew up with awful, unexpected things happening to me, that made me perpetually afraid of the next terrible thing that was going to take me by surprise. It might be that I’ve lost people I cared about suddenly, people who died or left without another word, people I never got back and couldn’t have gotten back. It’s probably all of those things and more.

We grab for control of our lives because we’re desperately afraid of what would happen if we didn’t. It doesn’t really matter how it starts.

The last few months of my life, the last year of my life, has been dramatic. The more I thought I didn’t have any control, the more I freaked out and tried to put my foot down, decide I deserved more, or better. Not getting what I needed felt like a value judgement, like I wasn’t important enough or loved enough or wanted enough … because after all, when people love us, they put us first right? They give us what we need regardless of what they need, or they don’t really love us. That’s the myth, anyway. But then you’re looking for a sign, a concrete answer, some kind of proof that you’re loved. That you’re worthy. You’re looking for someone to say, “I don’t want to do this thing but I will because you’re so important.”

I never wanted to be that kind of person. I don’t want to have to ask for proof. I don’t want what I can get by putting my foot down, I want what someone else wants to give me because that’s what they want. That’s real. Nothing else is.

Lately I’ve been trying to get my life back on track. To get back what I need to be happy. I’ve tried waiting, being impatient, making plans, marking dates on the calendar (if X happens by this date, it’ll be okay), crying. Pleading. Being terrified. That’s the thing about losing control, for me, specifically about losing someone suddenly, completely. I get panic attacks. My heart beats so fast it feels like a bird trying to beat itself to death against the inside of my chest. I’m drowning in myself and I’ll do anything to make it stop.

The sad part is that trying to hold on tightly, out of fear, is almost always exactly the wrong way to make things better.

It snowed tonight, our first big snow of the winter. I sat outside for a while and watched it fall. It was so lovely, silent and still. No one else was outside but me. I had been pushing against not getting what I what I wanted for so long, I was exhausted. I was ready to give up. That’s it, I’m not worth it, I’m never going to get what I need to be happy again.

I’m tired of being scared. I live in a beautiful place, I have a wonderful child, and I love someone amazing. I have so much potential to make my life better. The person holding me back all this time has been me. The person who thought I wasn’t good enough was me. So I gave up tonight, not on myself, but on trying to make something happen. I’ve said everything I can, I’ve done everything I can. If I’m loved, then I’ll be loved. If I have to wait, I’ll wait.

Anything could happen tomorrow. And I feel good about that.